Transformative learning or the process of making meaning of one’s experience resulting in a ‘perspective transformation’, emerged from the work of Jack Mezirow and has been explored through numerous research studies and reviews over the last 20 years.
Understanding the basic concept of transformative learning is relatively straight-forward, but putting it into practice is much more of a challenge. It is a learning theory which is very difficult to quantify and measure, and actually know if a ‘transformation’ has occurred. The very subjective nature of the area has caused it to be highly critiqued, some saying that all learning is, in fact, transformative in nature, just of varying degrees.
Whether transformative learning exists as a truly different category of learning, or whether it is merely an aspect of the general learning process, albeit a more intense learning experience; what can be done is to create an environment where transformations of perspective are more likely to occur. In most educational settings, transformative learning can not be ‘taught’, but it can be encouraged through deep reflective thought and becoming aware and critical of assumptions.
One of the key elements in providing an environment where transformative learning can occur is through discourse. Discourse involves assessing one’s own beliefs, values and feelings, and also that of others through open communication. The goal here is to assess the reasons behind one’s own viewpoints, critically examining those viewpoints and ‘testing’ them. After examining them from other perspectives and points of view, do they hold up in the mind of the individual? If they don’t, transformative learning occurs, creating a significant change in perspective.
From my own experience in the classroom, I find a lot of my college-aged students, who have quite strong viewpoints on issues, do not actually know why they have these viewpoints. Where did they come from? How were they formulated? Was it passed down from a family member? Read in a book? Seen on TV? I have found that many of my students have not really critically examined their own views and beliefs, but have simply absorbed them from others of influence or their environment throughout their lives.
To create an environment where transformative learning can occur in my classroom I encourage my students to approach anything with an open mind and willingness to listen. Listen openly to the viewpoints of others, critically examine their own viewpoints and have the ability to justify these viewpoints. In a new class, one of the first things I say to my students is that it is ok to disagree, be that with others in the class, myself as the instructor, or the teaching material itself. In fact, I encourage it, as long as they can justify their reasoning, they listen to the other side openly and they are always respectful. This openness creates a safe space to discuss differing points of view and teaches the class that it is also ok to ‘agree to disagree’.
Transformative learning experiences should be the goal of all teachers and instructors. The key element is creating the environment where these experiences can occur.